Rogan ran the whetstone across his blade, trying to school his expression into something that did not resemble total mind-wrenching terror and not entirely succeeding. The other recruits were doing likewise, with varying degrees of success, sparring with one another and trying to squeeze some last minute advice from the handful of veterans scattered throughout the ranks.
When he had joined the army, he'd never really expected to have to go to war. None of them had. The Horde skirmishes were another thing entirely, too few and far between to be considered more than a cursory resistance, but none of those had bothered him as much as what the scouts were reporting.
Scourge. Thousands of them. Too many to count, even for the keen-eyed Hunters sent ahead to try and get an accurate number.
Fighting orcs and trolls were one thing. Fighting the Scourge was much worse. Rogan had heard stories about the abominations and skeletal horrors that made up the majority of the enemy forces; the veterans shuddered as they recounted horrors so unimaginable that they still had trouble believing it had actually occurred, and here they were on the front lines. Waiting.
Rogan did not like this plan. It was times like these he wished he had taken up another class. Rogue, maybe. Anything to get out of the Death Squad he'd been assigned to. But he was a Warrior, and he knew his place… even if he didn't like it.
There were a few Paladins going in with them against the first wave practically glowing in their golden armor—beacons of hope amongst the exhausted and hungry recruits being used as cannon fodder against the monsters: fearless, devout, capable of rendering any type of undead creature helpless with a single swing of their blade. Rogan was glad to have them along, although if it were up to him, the entire front line would be made of Paladins. He was sure there was a very good reason for why the least experienced and most likely to die were being pitted against the freshest and most aggressive of the Scourge ranks.
He just didn't know what that reason was.
He set his sword down in his lap and sighed at it. His gear wasn't very durable. Quantity over quality seemed to be the new Alliance army motto, and it didn't take much of an imagination to envision his armor riddled with arrows.
Hahren collapsed beside him, wiping his forehead with the back of a gloved hand and heaving a sigh. He looked exhausted, but who wasn't?
"How bad it is?" Rogan asked him quietly, glancing around at his fellow recruits, all watching covertly, waiting for a report from the Hunter returning from his scout.
Hahren shook his head. "Bad. They just… go on forever." He frowned and let his head drop into his hands. Rogan wasn't surprised to see them shaking. He doubted he would have the courage to come back to camp after seeing what Hahren had seen. Deserter is better than dead. "I'll be honest with you Rogan… I don't hold out much hope for us."
"Well I appreciate the honesty, at least." Rogan huffed. "Where's that damned wolf of yours? Not eating my boots again, I hope."
Hahren glanced pointedly down at Rogan's feet. "Unless I'm mistaken you're already wearing your boots."
"Doesn't mean he wouldn't chew on them."
Hahren snorted. "True. Bjor's in the stables. I… didn't want to risk him. He's not exactly the epitome of stealth, you know."
"You could always get a cat. Most Hunters use those anyway." Rogan smirked at the frown on his friend's face.
"I've had Bjor since I first learned how to shoot a bow. I'm not going to go frolicking in the woods like a blasted Night Elf just for the sake of a pet with some stealth." Hahren ran his fingers through his short hair. "Don't tell Silnari I said that. She'll hurt me."
Rogan barked a laugh. "Knowing your luck she probably heard that comment even from the other end of camp."
Hahren smiled and shook his head as he stood. "Well I've got to go… hand this report in. Damn it." He lowered his voice. "Look, don't tell anyone I said this, but the Scourge are a lot closer than we thought they were. My best guess? They'll be on us in a matter of hours. Be ready when it happens."
Rogan nodded and watched the Hunter head off for the command tents. Somehow that bit of news didn't surprise him. He looked out over the plains where the two armies were to meet and could already make out the black mass on the edge of the horizon.
Soon it would be time to test that luck of his.
Rogan held his sword and shield in a white-knuckled grip, staring wide eyed at the veritable horde of… things… heading their way. He wasn't ashamed to admit that his hands shook so hard it was almost impossible to keep his shield at the ready. He wasn't ashamed to be having second thoughts about fighting for king and country.
He was, after all, handling the entire thing much better than the two recruits on either side of him who, if he was any judge, were already on the verge of tears.
The speech the generals had given earlier hadn't exactly been very inspiring, mostly reiterating the fact that they would most likely all die today, but that was okay because they were doing so so the rest of the Eastern Kingdoms would be safe. Rogan couldn't really care less about the rest of the Eastern Kingdoms right now. He was a bit preoccupied trying not to wet himself as soon as the first massive undead giant cleared the rise and drew itself into view. Even at this distance, he could tell it would be huge. More joined it and Rogan tried out a few new colorful curses under his breath.
The first wave of the Scourge was made of abominations? Of course they were. Skeletons would be too easy, wouldn't it? Can't have that!
Light preserve us. Rogan took a deep breath and not for the first time wished there would be more Paladins on their side tonight. He could stand to see a few Avenger's Shields breaking some Scourge heads right about now.
The signal was given and the Hunters lined up on the nearby ridge readied arrows. Rogan didn't bother looking back at them; it was enough to know they were there. Maybe they'd get lucky and a few of those walking nightmares would go down before they reached the front lines.
Then he heard the horn and his feet were moving forward at a run alongside the others, working on instinct and reflex more than conscious thought. As the two forces drew together, he noticed there were some skeletal horrors between him and the abominations. Thank the Light for small favors.
Reason was lost in the clashing of weapons, the ringing of steel on steel, the odd sensation of being nicked or cut only to have the flesh knit back together under the watchful eye of the Priests near the back. For every Scourge he cut down three more took its place. He saw men and women he'd come to call friends cut down by ghouls and gheists that appeared out of thin air. Paladins drawing the brunt of the aggression just by being there in the first place were swarmed and torn apart, the very Light they called on to aid them snuffed out under the taint of the Scourge.
An arrow embedded itself in his shield arm but he gritted his teeth and pressed on. He barely even felt it; the war raging around him was far more important and life-threatening than a single arrow. When his shield fell from limp fingers he spared the wound another glance.
Not one arrow. Four.
He jerked his head up when a hulking abomination appeared at the edge of his vision and he froze momentarily in horror. He'd never seen something so monstrous, so unnatural, so… wrong. Extra limbs holding axes and curved blades, bands of iron barely holding in entrails that threatened to empty on the ground with every step through the gaping hole in its center. He knew how they were made. Those were good soldiers, pieced together from the carnage of a previous battle and reworked into a weapon of the Scourge. That could be him in a few days.
The Scourge were infamous for not wasting anything.
A glint of steel drew his eye in time for the Scourge hook to tear through the thin chainmail of his chest and he could feel it catching under his skin. He had only a moment to appreciate the excruciating pain of it before he was being dragged through the air along the rusted chain.
He hit the ground rolling, the hook still caught in his chest, and looked up in time to see the abomination's blade coming down towards him.
A flash of light. A single moment where time slowed to a crawl and the only thing he could see was the wicked sword.
And then nothing.
'All that I am: anger, cruelty, vengeance - I bestow upon you, my chosen knight. I have granted you immortality so that you may herald in a new, dark age for the Scourge.'
Rogan's fingers twitched and he struggled to lift his broken body up on his elbows. He opened his eyes but saw nothing for the span of several moments, vision fading into place as he blinked. Everything felt… wrong. He shouldn't be alive. He felt the abomination's blade. He had its hook sunk into his torso. His entire left arm had been useless due to the multitude of arrows broken off into his shoulder.
His hand drifted to his shield arm and fingers traced the path of several jagged scars. Arrow wounds. He knelt and with shaking hands felt his chest.
There. The path of the Scourge hook. And here… where the sword had pierced his heart. He flattened his palm over his chest but he felt no pulse. He drew a breath he didn't need, body acting on a memory of air that he no longer required, and looked up into the eyes of a man in cerulean armor and glowing blue eyes.
He had failed. He had died.
So why was he here?
The man with the unnerving eyes peered at him, stroking his chin. "This one… this one has awoken too soon. It retains emotion and memory…"
Rogan felt the fingers of an alien mind in his own, brushing aside everything but the need to kill, to utterly annihilate something until nothing remained, to sink his blade into the flesh of an enemy and listen to the sweet music of its death. He shook his head, digging fingers into the hard stone beneath him and pushed himself to his feet.
He met the man's eyes and stared him down unflinchingly. There was a time when the sight of a rotting corpse of a man standing before him would have terrified him. But what was one man compared to an army of the Scourge? What was one man compared to death?
The man grinned. "A harbinger of death is reborn..." He unfolded his arms and gestured to the large antechamber. "Listen, death knight… Listen for the voice of your master. He calls to you now."
Rogan listened. He could hear it, the faintest brush of sound on the fringes of his mind. A whisper, promises of chaos and destruction, a silent command to submit and obey that he was powerless to fight.
He took a step forward and almost buckled under the sensation of it. How long had it been since that night on the battlefield? How long had he lain there amongst the corpses of good men and women, lost within the slew of Scourge? It was not muscle that moved him now. It was something black and twisted; a madness in his blood that pulled him on despite how hard he fought against it.
The more he struggled for control, the harder it became to remember why he was fighting at all. The more he resisted, the more of himself bled away into the chaos of whispers dominating his thoughts.
'Give in to the darkness, death knight.'
Rogan obeyed. He was helpless to do otherwise. This Voice, this presence, commanded the fire in his blood and it was by its will that he know suffering or mercy. His feet took him up a flight of stairs and through a ring of light that was blinding in its intensity, but it sent him no pain. His eyes no longer needed the light to see. He shunned anything to do with the light.
The whispers became frenzied as he fell to his knee, ignoring the urge to stand. If he fought he would lose himself. Only by submitting could he fight at all.
If he were capable of knowing fear, he would feel it at that moment. The Lich King.
The whispers bade him rise and he obeyed them, walking to the edge of the floating necropolis and peering down at the lands spread below him like a feast.
'Gaze now upon the lands below us. The Scarlet Crusade scurries to undo my work, while Light's Hope stands defiantly against us - a blemish upon these Plaguelands. They must all be shown the price of their defiance.'
Rogan smiled. Yes. There would be so much death, so much pain… he would slake his bloodthirst on those who dared stand against the might of the Lich King.
'You will become my force of retribution. Where you tread, doom will follow. Go now and claim your destiny, death knight.'
His destiny. There had been a time when that meant fighting for the Alliance, giving his life in service of his king, going off to war with the Scourge. How the tables have turned.
He had paid his price in blood. The Alliance had sent him off to die, left him to bleed out on the battlefield amidst the bittersweet stench of rot and decay. The Scourge had broken him down and rebuilt him. He had been imperfect. Human. Now he was something more. He was Death incarnate, a Knight under the service of his new King.
Rogan had a new purpose.